A valued tradition is revived in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday
This spring, over 100 descendents of Salt Island, along with government officials and other dignitaries, gathered at the edge of one of the island’s two salt ponds. They were there to take part in the “breaking of the salt pond” – a ceremony that had not occurred in over 40 years. Part of the celebrations organized to mark Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday, the occasion was a 21st century event honoring an age-old tradition.
For generations, the inhabitants of Salt Island, a small island of sloping hills to the southeast of Tortola, harvested the briny salt from two large salt ponds that lay at its center. Forging a life of family and tradition, Salt Islanders were self-sufficient and hardy, weathering hurricanes and isolation. The work of harvesting the salt was backbreaking and the income meager, but throughout the years they persevered, taking pride in a job that was integral to the islands’ culture and commerce.
Prior to refrigeration, beef and fish were salted for preservation. In the 18th and 19th centuries, ships passing through the British Virgin Islands would anchor in Salt Island’s bay to stock up on salt for their journey. Salt was equally essential to island residents, who would travel to the island to fill their cupboards for the coming year.
During the dry season, the water in the island’s two shallow saltwater ponds slowly evaporates leaving its salt content to form a hard crust on the bottom. When the edges of the ponds are rimmed with a sparkling salt crystal (generally in April or early May), they are ready for harvesting, and British Virgin Islanders from all over the Territory would gather on the island waiting for the conclusion of the salt pond breaking ceremony. Supervising the event would be an islander appointed as government agent. His post, along with all the rules regarding the pond’s reaping, was created by legislation extending back to the Government Salt Pond Ordinance of 1904 which vested ownership of the ponds to the Crown. According to the law, harvesters were required to give the government one bag of salt for every three collected – this levy was later reduced to a ceremonial pound of salt for the Queen. At one time 1,000 pounds of salt was reaped from the island’s two ponds annually.
In order that the salt could be harvested in the coolness of the early morning hours, the British Virgin Islands’ administrator, and later the Governor, would journey to the island at 5:30am to declare the pond “open.” A member of the Royal Virgin Islands Police would fire a shot in the air, and the public would walk to the pond and start reaping salt for two days, the amount of time allotted by law.
The reaping was so popular an event that preceding the “breaking of the pond” there was a festival. Scores of boats from neighboring islands would start arriving the day before, and by evening the dancing, singing and eating would be well underway, carrying on until late into the night.
The end of the salt industry on Salt Island began in the mid-20th century when imported packaged salt became commonplace. The development of the tourism industry in the 1960s and 70s meant that well-paying jobs were available on Tortola and at neighboring island resorts, and Salt Islanders began to move away. By the 1970s only a stalwart few remained, notably Clementine Smith, Clarence and Beatrice Smith and Norwell Durant. Eventually only Norwell remained there, harvesting salt and selling salt-filled pouches to sailors who anchored in the bay.
After his death the island remained uninhabited, and except for the occasional yachtsman, and members of the Salt Island descendants association, which held a reunion there every summer, the island has remained frozen in time. There is a sturdy new dock, but onshore, mostly rugged stone foundations and a few dilapidated wooden and concrete structures still stand – all that is left of a once vibrant settlement. This year’s Salt Island Pond Breaking Ceremony once again brought life to the settlement.At the ceremony, Premier, Dr. Orlando Smith stated, “For many reasons it is important that we continue to appreciate the relationship between the British Virgin Islands and the United Kingdom Government. The gifting of salt willingly helped to concrete that relationship.”
Governor John S. Duncan, also spoke, noting that “It has been a particular pleasure for me as your Governor and the representative of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in the Virgin Islands to be part of the effort to revive this unique ceremony rooted in your oral history.”
Among the descendents in attendance, Luce Hodge Smith, the Director of the Virgin Islands Department of Culture spoke of her own heritage and the event’s significance to her and the other Salt Islanders present. And as in days past, a member of the Royal Virgin Islands Police, fired a shot in the air, and all in attendance walked to the pond. Salt Island descendent, Elcine Durante, presented a pouch of salt to Premier Smith, who in turn presented it to Governor Duncan who accepted it on behalf of The Queen. The salt was harvested by Calvin Smith, also a descendent of Salt Island, and was contained in a pouch designed by local artist Aragorn Dick-Read and decorated with symbols of Virgin Islands heritage. The central figure on the bag was an image of Clementine Smith, among Salt Island’s last and most dedicated salt reapers.
This will not be the last of these ceremonies. Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Rhone off the shore of Salt Island. At the time, Salt Islanders helped to rescue the ship’s handful of survivors, and buried the victims who washed a shore. To commemorate the event, the salt pond breaking ceremony will be held once again – an island tradition that is no longer lost to time.